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Georgiana Banita. Plotting Justice: Narrative Ethics and Literary Culture After 9/11. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2012. xiv + 357 pp.

Banita’s ambitious project surveys a constellation of interrelated discourses—trauma, exceptionalism, transnationalism, alterity, and surveillance, to name a few—orbiting around “narrative ethics” in post-9/11 fiction. The theoretical frame that orders these disparate discourses rests on figures like Emmanuel Levinas, Martha Nussbaum, and J. Hillis Miller: ethicists who explore the intersection of Self and Other. Her refreshing choice of texts expands 9/11 fiction beyond the now-ossifying canon—she only foregrounds two canonical texts: Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers—and moves her project toward a coverage model without sacrificing analytical depth. For better or worse, the engagement with so many different—and often competing—discourses undercuts a unified thesis. As she puts it, “The specific concerns that structure this book . . . seek to encode the broad cultural reach of post-9/11 literature and its granularly sophisticated ethical questions” (5). This “broad cultural reach” promotes dialogue about what post-9/11 ethics might look like rather than arguing for a particular ethical valence. For instance, in an introductory survey of the field, Banita alternately describes post-9/11 narrative ethics in terms “of deriving ethical norms from the representations of evil” in Jess Walter’s The Zero (6), preserving a “paralytic condition” in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall (7), and demonstrating “that forgetfulness is, in fact, the ultimate ethical act” in Ward Just’s Forgetfulness (9), among others. Each claim offers new possibilities for a post-9/11 narrative ethic but represents red herrings in the overall schema of Banita’s argument, which focuses on five specific concerns: “ethical spectatorship, psychoanalysis, race, transnationalism, and surveillance” (5). These five concepts structure the subsequent chapters.

The first chapter on ethical spectatorship addresses how the protagonists in DeLillo, Spiegelman, and Helen Schulman’s A Day at the Beach confront the visual spectacle of the 9/11 trauma and how this might lead to more informed connections with the world. For Banita, DeLillo provides multiple modes of ethical spectatorship, from the Giorgio Morandi paintings that “cauterize [the wound] and reinstate a sense of coherence through the tidy arrangement of things in space” (70) to the performance artist who “opens up a space of connection and facilitates an encounter with the traumatic event that allows it to be worked through by means of collective mourning” (71). In very different ways—but perhaps in her most stunning close reading of the monograph—Banita beautifully weaves an analysis of [End Page 162] Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers with a reading of Maus. Here, the images of suicide and smoking that invoke Spiegelman’s mother’s death and the smokestacks at Auschwitz are appropriated in the post-9/11 moment to comment on the ethics of “silence, representation, and historical commemoration” (76). For instance, the absence of Spiegelman’s mother’s narrative in Maus reflects the absent narratives of the anonymous jumpers with whom Spiegelman has difficulty connecting. The visual “ventriloquism” of placing himself in the position of the falling man is a “first step toward performing ethical identification and responsiveness to the suffering of others” (84). Witnessing necessitates the accommodation of the tragedy in our own lives. Balancing these two perspectives is Schulman’s A Day at the Beach, in which the jumpers outside the protagonist’s window are juxtaposed against the simultaneous televisual images. “The tension between these two forms of visual experience” demands trauma be “anchor[ed] firmly in daily life” (93). Between DeLillo’s artistic sensibility and Spiegelman’s personalized historicization of the tragedy, Schulman promotes “not the recovery of a complete, harmonious self, but the acknowledgment of Otherness and of [the protagonist’s] responsibility to it” (107).

The subsequent chapters follow a similar structural mode: one or two texts are used to demonstrate a difficult ethical perspective before the chapter culminates in some middle ground and a representative text. But each chapter provides a unique and interrelated brand of narrative ethics. Through an extended discussion of psychoanalysis, chapter 2 transitions from Ground Zero narratives to an engagement of Other(ed) perspectives, and it is in chapter 3 that Plotting Justice expands its scope from explicitly 9/11-related texts to a discussion of the aftermath: namely race, risk, and the post-9/11 Homeland Security State. Chapter 3 argues that in the post-9/11 environment, “classic forms of racism are reworked into less clearly defined plausibility principles” (169). As a result, “risk rather than race becomes the currency of suspicion,” and racism gets subsumed under the aegis of a risk society. Banita traces this manifestation in Chitra Divakaruni’s Queen of Dreams, Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, and Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land, arguing that “post-9/11 fiction is not simply cognizant of the racialization of the War on Terror, but to some extent is also complicit with its strategies, reinforcing the subliminal influence of race on counterterrorist practices through a paradoxical, tacit neglect of this influence” (167). Banita calls out much 9/11 fiction for unselfconsciously legitimating this discourse and promotes “narrative agency” (185) and a “collectivity of vision” (191) in Gayle Brandeis’s Self Storage and Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days. These two texts self-consciously challenge American racial exceptionalist discourse through the figure of Walt Whitman. [End Page 163]

Chapters 4 and 5 move from the multicultural literature of the previous chapter to transnational literature. In a highly original contribution, chapter 4 looks at the “Balkanization of 9/11” (207) in Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project and Pat Barker’s Double Vision, two texts that situate 9/11 within the history, aesthetics, and narrative ethics of the Bosnian War. Chapter 5 turns to the discourse of a transnational “surveillance economy” (255) and its reversal of what Banita identifies as ethical spectatorship in chapter 1: whereas the literature analyzed in the latter is directed toward “seeing and responding to images of pain,” the former “are all about being seen” (252). The works of Walter Kirn, Jonathan Raban, William Gibson, Richard Flanagan, and Lorraine Adams speak to this notion of visibility as it relates to questions of control, authority, identity, and belonging. What makes these texts collectively unique from the Orwellian and Foucauldian panoptic society that preceded the September 11 attacks, Banita argues, is the permeability of “domestic crime fighting and global warfare” (Shapiro qtd. in Banita 258), or the transnational capacity of surveillance culture in the post-9/11 moment.

All in all, Plotting Justice makes a positive contribution to the discourse of post-9/11 fiction, filling a scholarly gap first engaged by Kristiaan Versluys and Richard Gray. While the former asked for an engagement of poethics (poetic ethics) and the latter pushed for greater engagement with the Other, Banita extends both projects by expanding the canon and articulating a breadth of ethical themes. Unlike its predecessors, though, Plotting Justice brooks no definitive stances that might open it up to criticism of prescriptiveness. It remains a panoramic survey rather than a codified argument. As such, it may be easy to find oneself lost in the constantly multiplying ethical alternatives proposed, but this is a feature, not a bug; all the better to prompt ethical engagement in her readers.

Aaron Derosa
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona